Looming large over this year’s legislative review of Gov. Chris Christie’s latest budget proposal is the uncertainty of federal budget cuts. Yesterday, advocate after advocate told lawmakers that state programs ranging from healthcare to housing to the environment will be in danger if the federal budget is slashed as deeply as many expect.
Lawmakers are in the midst of a series of public hearings on Christie’s proposed budget for the state’s next fiscal year, a process that in the last few years has influenced several changes made to the governor’s original spending plan.
What exactly gets hits and how deep the cuts will be largely remains to be seen, though more information could be released as early as today. But with New Jersey’s fiscal year beginning on July 1, and the federal fiscal year starting on October 1, the impact of the potential federal cuts was on the minds of many who testified during a hearing held yesterday to collect public comments on Christie’s proposed $35.5 billion spending plan for the 2018 fiscal year.
Concerns ranged from how federal cuts could hit big-ticket programs like the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid to smaller issues like funding for housing, ALS research and the arts. And though not directly related to actions taken by President Donald Trump’s administration, lawmakers also heard from representatives of the Jewish community who are worried about security at religious schools, community centers and other facilities in the wake of an uptick in anti-Semitism that has occurred in recent months, both in New Jersey and across the country.
“There is a very real concern,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) during the hearing held in Trenton yesterday.
Changes to Medicaid discussed
In all, Christie’s proposed FY2018 budget would increase state spending by about $1 billion over the $34.6 billion spending plan that’s in place for the current fiscal year, which closes at the end of June. Much of the increase, about $650 million, will be used to cover a larger state contribution into the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system. Aid for schools, municipalities and property tax relief programs would be held flat under the spending plan Christie put forward last month.
The state in recent years has been able to reduce its spending on healthcare programs for the poor thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid, but Trump and Republicans in Congress are backing federal legislation that would repeal the healthcare law commonly referred to as Obamacare. Changes to Medicaid have also been discussed, including turning the program into “block grants” that would be allocated to the states.
Kevin Casey, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, called the possible changes to Medicaid “a serious threat” to those who work with the disabled in New Jersey. “We are very concerned about the future of Medicaid and what’s happening in Washington with Medicaid,” Casey told the state lawmakers. “It’s a serious issue.”
Ideally, Casey said, the state would have the resources to help cover a $1.25 per-hour wage increase for the direct-support professionals who work with the disabled on a daily basis. The $36 million proposal would benefit workers who have gone as many as 10 years without a raise, he said.
“The truth is, the future of our system depends on these employees,” he said.
Seeking more money for health centers
Jillian Hudspeth, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Primary Care Association, said the state’s network of federally qualified health centers is growing, and she asked lawmakers to boost the current $28 million budget allocation for the centers. More than 40 percent of the federal centers’ clients were uninsured before the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, but that group has now been reduced to 27 percent, she said.
Asked by Schaer about how changes at the federal level could impact the federal centers, Hudspeth also raised the issue of Medicaid. “One of the things we’re concerned about is what happens with Medicaid and what it looks like when it gets to the states,” she said.
Christie has repeatedly pointed to the services provided by the federal centers after cutting $7.5 million in state funding during his first term for women’s healthcare services provided by Planned Parenthood. Now, Trump and Republicans in Congress are also talking about stripping the organization’s federal funding over concerns about abortion.
Nicole Matos, a Planned Parenthood staffer from New Jersey, told lawmakers her own personal story about receiving healthcare services from the agency before she became one of its employees.
“I was able to get the care that I needed in a way that I can afford,” Matos said. “I’m here today as you’re making decisions about the New Jersey budget to help you keep women like me in mind.”
When the hearing turned to a discussion of environmental issues, Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s chapter of the Sierra Club, urged lawmakers to consider the impact federal budget cuts could have on environmental programs administered at the state level. Christie, a second-term Republican, has slashed funding for enforcement programs and parks, leaving New Jersey ill-prepared to deal with any major loss of federal revenue, Tittel said.
“The main reason I’m here is to talk about what’s happening at the federal level,” he said. “It’s going to have a bigger impact than we realize.”
NJ ‘facing an unknown economic future’
Sheila Reynertson, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank based in Trenton, suggested programs like housing assistance and student loans and even Trump’s stepped up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants are also likely to have an impact on New Jersey’s economy and budget.
“New Jersey is facing an unknown economic future that could spell disaster for the vulnerable and families struggling to get by,” Reynertson said. “It’s time to be honest about the reality of this budget season and take pro-active measures to stop digging the state into a deeper hole,” she said.
And though not directly related to the federal budget, lawmakers were to boost state funding for school security at nonpublic religious schools by Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey director of Agudath Israel of America. Similar requests have been made in the past, but the effort has taken on new urgency amid a wake of bomb threats and other acts of anti-Semitism that have occurred in the wake of last year’s presidential election. Trump has condemned the acts, but his administration has also been accused of fostering division and religious tension after imposing actions like a recent immigration ban targeting Muslim-majority countries.
“We live in a dangerous climate,” Schnall said. “Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant for our safety.”